By Richard Laming
The first signs of a deal on how to develop a European defence represent a step forward, perhaps a bigger step than it might at first seem. Don’t be distracted by the fact that only a small group of member states appear to be involved.
Europe is looking for such a deal because the Convention was unable to agree anything on such an important subject itself. It recognised reality and proposed that the first tentative steps in European defence cooperation might be made by a smaller group of member states rather than by all 25 at once. No-one expects the Irish or the Swedes to lead the way on this issue, but they should not be allowed prevent those that wish to from doing so either.
If there is anything that immediately catches the eye, perhaps it is the British involvement in the initiative. But that itself should not be too surprising.
The British policy on foreign affairs is not to cut itself off from Europe. It is to stay close to America and, if possible, to bring the rest of Europe into that close relationship as well. The British nightmare would be a fledgling European defence force that was conceived as being completely separate from the trans-Atlantic relationship. In such a situation, the British might be forced to choose between Europe and America. That is the decision they do not want to have to take.
But anyone who wishes democracy well knows that European and American values are not so very far apart. On the fundamental questions of democracy and liberty, both sides of the Atlantic can agree on most things. There are differences, true, but all countries are different in some respects.
The biggest difference of opinion between Europeans and Americans lies in our different attitudes towards the global institutions and the international rule of law. Even the present British government shares the aspiration that global institutions can be strengthened, but the rule of law is meaningless if it cannot be enforced.
But if the case for law is to be put persuasively to the Americans, it will have to be backed by a serious approach to enforcement by the Europeans themselves. That is where the British have an important role to play.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the recent war in Iraq, the Americans felt abandoned by many of their European allies. The Europeans called for the disarmament of Saddam Hussein but played no part in carrying it out. That is a mistake that must not be repeated and the first steps in the direction of European defence suggest that it won’t be.
The rest of Europe would be making a mistake if it assumed that the British will never take part fully in a European defence initiative, but they would be making an even bigger mistake if they think that the UK will join in at the price of its transatlantic contacts. The British are looking for a way to do both.
A more powerful Europe that can be a partner of the United States in both debate and action: now that is a prospect that the British – and the rest of Europe – could learn to live with.
This article was first published in the newspaper “Europa”, on 8 January 2004. Richard Laming is Secretary of Federal Union, and may be contacted at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.